Mailbag: Kerber’s successful year leaves 2017 WTA season up for grabs
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• Our most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline podcast was with Torben Ulrich, tennis’ philosopher king:
• Next on the docket: Alison Riske, who finished off the best year of her pro career.
• If anyone wants to have lunch, this benefits a good cause.
I know she has had a breakout year, and I hate to put a damper on it, but WTHIGOW Angelique Kerber? As great as this year was, it could have been epic if she did not lose two matches that great players do not lose. She lost to Puig in Rio, which I guess I could somewhat accept, because there is something special about playing for your country, and especially the motivation for Puig winning Puerto Rico's first gold medal. This loss to Cibulkova was inexcusable, and makes Kerber look like a cream puff. Kerber seems to still not believe enough in herself enough to win the easier matches. Cibulkova didn't even deserve to be in the end of year tournament, and got to the semis with a 1-2 record, and above all, is not who most people would term a great tennis player—an accidental major finalist might be a better way to describe her than the Pocket Rocket. Yet, she beat the No. 1-ranked player to win the equivalent of the fifth major. I know some will attribute it to Kerber being tired. I just have to say maybe Kerber is greatly overrated. I personally think she will win zero majors in 2017, and her ranking will drop because of all the points she needs to defend (two Slams and a final). If Serena does not win any majors either, which really could happen, we are going to have one of those WTA years where there are at least two one-Slam wonder winners. Maybe 2017 will finally be the year for the veteran combo of Radwanska/Halep, or the WTA next gen of Pliskova/Keys, maybe Kuznetsova might shock us again, and Azarenka gets the ultimate baby shower gift of the U.S. Open.
• I think that’s too harsh by an order of magnitude. A year ago, Kerber was barely in the top ten. Today she’s not only No. 1 but she’s won a pair of Slams, reached the final of a third (declining to blink at Wimbledon when facing Serena Williams), won Olympic silver and was the runner-up in Singapore. In the course of one year, she amassed Hall of Fame credentials. In no universe is that anything other than a smashing year. That Serena is 35, Sharapova was serving a doping ban and Azarenka is pregnant doesn’t diminish anything either. Just means Kerber was an opportunist.
Is she beatable? Sure. She only won one non-Slam. Could her year have been either better had she sealed the deals in Rio and Singapore? Sure. Whether this motivates her in 2017 (“there are still holes in need of spackling”) or motivates the opposition (“the No. 1 is beatable”) remains to be seen.
Also, I think you shortchange—forgive the pun—Cibulkova. She has a certain toughness, and she brought it to be bear last weekend. Good for her for taking advantage of the quirks of round robin. Good for her fashioning a game that relies on strengths other than, well, strength. Good for her for meeting the moment—much as Kerber did all season. An unexpected result doesn’t mean an ill-deserved result.
I don’t disagree, though, with what is perhaps your overall point. Kerber may not be able to replicate her stellar 2016 in 2017. And with that we may have an open field, the like of which we haven’t had pre-Williams. Between/among Serena, Federer and Nadal deep into their autumns; with Murray and Djokovic turning 30; with Sharapova returning from a doping ban and Azarenka returning from pregnancy (I was told that the French Open could feature them both) you have a sense that 2017 will be a transition year. (See more on that below.) That’s okay. It’s the life cycle of sports. As it is written: from parity, dynamos emerge.
You know how the NFL shows the scorebox during the game and it includes the score and how many time outs are left? I think tennis should do the same thing by adding how many “challenges” are left for the players.
—Kelly Gulley, Louisville, K.Y.
• Not bad. On most in stadiums scorecards “challenges remaining” features prominently. Your point is well taken, though. Tennis could do a better job of using more of the screen to impart information. Not just stats from the match at hand, but scores from other matches, social media nuggets, random pieces of data, etc.
Re: mailbag, why sell on Radwanska when this kind of late career resurgence is the new norm?
• Yes and no. In some ways, there’s no sense selling anyone on the WTA these days. The field is that wide open. And, in beating Kerber to win the year-end shebang, Cibulkova gives the lie to the idea that power and physical presence are pre-requirements for success these days. Plus, as you suggest, Radwanska is Kerber’s junior. (A-Rad she doesn’t turn 28 until next spring. Actually she always celebrates her birthday the week of Indian Wells, which means only one thing: free dessert at Palm Springs Cheesecake Factory.)
I like Radwanska personally. I like her game and her on-court wit. But I’m losing faith in her ability to win seven straight matches. Too susceptible to big power. Too susceptible to mental disappearances. I also think that while late-career surges are all the rage, you have to consider the player and the context. Nearly a decade ago, A-Rad was starting to make the latter rounds of majors. She’s seen the fourth round or better at a major 25 times. She has, of course, never won. I wonder about the accumulated effect of all those deep runs that have fallen short.
Is there any precedent for adding Mischa Zverev to the ballot for comeback player of 2016? The guy had been ranked outside the top 150 for the last five years but, in the last month, nearly scored wins over Djokovic and Cilic and knocked out Wawrinka.
• Exactly. As one of you jokingly noted: “This Zverev guy is a real player to watch in the future…and we hear his little brother is pretty good, too.” Mischa Zverev actually cracked the top 50 in 2011. But the next five years were very a much slog through the tennis desert. Lots of injuries, lot of qualifying draws. This fall, though, he’s really played lights out. After losing in qualies at the first three majors, he made the main draw in New York. Since then, he’s won more than a dozen matches, taken a set off Djokovic, and is currently No. 52.
I really enjoyed talking him last month and was interested by his realistic—if not witheringly harsh—assessment of his own abilities.
I’m also fascinated by his relationship with his brother. We’ve seen other sports siblings, of course. (Tennis has given us the best sister act in sports history.) But I can’t recall these circumstances. The older brother is a journeyman; the younger brother is a star with wings. Their age difference is almost a full decade. And yet they’re still close.
I recently read an article on tennis.com about the inevitable changes that tennis must make in order to maintain the interest of millennials and that got me wondering: How much change can tennis handle? I think the answer to this depends on how we define what makes tennis, tennis. I play tennis recreationally around the USTA 3.0/3.5 level and I don't have the power of most of my opponents. I get by with spins, angles, hustle and guile. A few times in my life I've had an opponent shout at me, “Play REAL Tennis!”
My take is Tennis is two or more people hitting a ball back and forth, with rackets, over a net into a court of specific dimensions until it can't be returned or is hit out of the court. As long as that's happening my gut says that's tennis, no matter what scoring system you graft upon it. So for me there's lots of room for change. But what do other people think? So Jon: What is tennis?
—Cainim in Minnesota
• What is tennis? We should have thrown this one at Torben Ulrich last week.
I think tennis is getting close to a real moment of reckoning. Few of the metrics are going in the right direction. Media is in a state of flux. Sponsors—or partners, in the vernacular—are increasingly skeptical. These once-in-a-generation stars that have served as the sport’s pillars and nearing the end of their generation. The collision of forces is, rightly, encouraging the sport’s decision makers to reconsider the sport. In particular, does the current format and presentation maximize value to fans, and, thus, the marketplace. And it will be interesting to see which of these changes are for the pro game and which of these will trickle down to rec level.
In some ways this is the analysis that every business goes through. In an era of health consciousness and concerns about obesity, McDonald’s adds healthy options. As fuel prices go up and environmental concerns loom large, auto manufacturers top making Humvees and invest in green technology. In an era of Airbnb, hotels reconsider that pricing models.
The question, of course, becomes: how to we innovate without changing the product beyond recognition or damaging the brand? My opinion: tennis tends to underestimate the fans’ (and players’) appetite for change and capacity to adjust. Regional tours? Four-game sets?
You recently wrote: “…As talk gets increasingly serious about changing tennis’ format to become more fan friendly…” Could we perhaps be clearer about this? Changing tennis format isn't friendly to the fans tennis already has. It's an attempt to attract people who are *not* fans. So, perhaps: “non-fan-friendly”?
• Well put. The danger to change in any industry: alienating the base.
I've noticed over the last several weeks that some ball kids at some tournaments are sporting small nets to help them shag the balls. They appear to be junior tennis racquets that have been altered. Do you have any insight as to the motivation for this? Are the powers that be trying to speed up the game?
—Miles Benson, Hudson, Mass.
• Innovation, brother. (Long as we’re not talking about the Madrid Hooters ballgirls, we’re okay with butterfly nets.)
• I’m not entirely sure what this all actually, you know, means but: At the WTA Finals, WTA CEO Steve Simon announced the launch of WTA Networks, a new digital media and marketing division that will deliver tennis fans with the highest-quality, on and off-the-court content available anywhere. WTA Networks will completely revamp the WTA’s owned and controlled channels, wtatennis.com and branded social channels. The new digital and social content platform, creative look and feel and enhanced user experience will launch on January 1, 2017 at www.wtatennis.com and via a mobile app for Apple and Android smartphones and tablets.
“Today, the WTA is a major sports league and we see this step in our digital and social evolution as transformational, for all involved, especially tennis fans, and are hugely committed to this venture financially,” Simon noted. “We have dedicated a great amount of resources to ensure that the content on the WTA Networks is exceptional and delivers for our players, our partners and our fans. Our goal is simple—take our fans on tour with us and experience the WTA like never before.”
• For the tennis fans’ calendar: Don’t You Say a F**king Word, a play about tennis, love, hate and competition.
• Press releasing: The University of Florida USTA Tennis On Campus team is back on top of the Tennis On Campus ladder as the Gators upset defending national champion Auburn University to win its third Fall Invitational in the past four years.
• This week’s reader riff is terrific and comes from Puneet Manchanda of Ann Arbor. For background: last week we asked whether it was prudent marketing for the official water of the U.S. Open to charge a scandalously high price for its product on-site.
I am a long time tennis fan/nut (and also try to play as much as I can). I also happen to be a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of business (formal title blah blah in my signature below) and thought that I could perhaps give you my thoughts on the question below, from this week’s Mailbag:
“Long as we’re here….here’s a sponsorship question that was posed to me during the U.S. Open. I would love it if a marketing type could weigh in. I have a friend who bought a scandalously overpriced bottle of water at the U.S. Open, provided by the tournament’s water sponsor, and wondered if this wasn’t backfiring. “It’s like having a Mercedes on the grounds with a sticker price of four times what the car would cost at a dealership. The difference is that I don’t need a Mercedes the way I need water. I pay $4.50 for a bottle of water that costs $1 at my bodega and I never want to buy that brand again. How is that a good sponsorship play?” He got me. If anyone has thoughts, fire away.”
I think that there are three reasons why such “high” prices do not lead to a backlash like the one suggested by your questioner. The first is something we call “reference pricing.” Reference prices refer to what we as consumers think are “reasonable” or the “right” prices for a product or service. These reference prices develop over time via experience and are context dependent—if one is a regular attendee at sports events/concerts/musicals etc., then one observes prices at such events and “learns” the reference price. A good example of this when one travels to another country for the first time—prices can sometimes seems out of whack and that is because there hasn’t been enough experience to develop a reference price in that specific context (the new country you are visiting). In other words, the reference price for all food and drink at events is much higher than that at retail, and so there isn’t any backlash. Second, and this is related to reference prices, is the notion of “mental accounts.” We have different accounts in our head for different things and we value money differently depending upon which account it is coming from. So, in this case, the money spent on a bottle of water at the U.S. Open is coming from our “entertainment” account rather than our “grocery” account. So, the $ 4.50 is really (part) payment for being entertained, not so much payment for a bottle of water. Finally, “attribution” also plays a role. In this case, most consumers rationalize the high price by saying that the bottle of water is expensive as the tournament probably charged a hefty sponsorship fee to the manufacturer who is just trying to recover its cost. Thus, the high price is attributed to the U.S. Open (e.g., “such a greedy lot, the tournament organizers”) and not the brand itself. This is why we pay “high” prices for such items at airports, theme parks etc. where brands have to bid on for concessions/licenses as well.
Of course, this is true for the representative customer and there will be variation in the response so some customers could be annoyed enough to punish the brand. But I can’t think of a single instance of brand being punished by a majority of consumers in such settings.
Sorry if this is a bit long winded, but that’s academic folks for you 🙂